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Staying Connected

ICTP scientists find innovative way to create virtual, random encounters

Staying Connected
Staying Connected


ICTP is well known for its ability to bring scientists together, whether it is in a lecture hall, a corridor or at its beloved coffee bar. Random encounters between scientists often generate new ideas and new perspectives on some of physics' and mathematics' most intractable problems. A quick look at the formula-filled blackboards that populate ICTP's Leonardo Building give testament to the robustness of these impromptu interactions.

But restrictions related to the pandemic have prevented these fruitful encounters, forcing most scientists to contain their discussions to scheduled, online fora. Although ICTP has successfully transitioned all of its conferences, courses and seminars to online events, the loss of impromptu encounters has been keenly felt by an institute that, in non-COVID times, would host about 6000 visitors a year at its facilities.

As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention.

ICTP's High Energy, Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics (HECAP) section has started a virtual chat group called HEPchat to recreate the random encounters visitors to ICTP are accustomed to. The initiative, organized by HECAP scientist Mehrdad Mirbabayi, randomly pairs subscribers with a new chat partner every week from a pool of professors, postdocs, PhD students and others among ICTP's wide network of scientists. Those connections are particularly important for Mirbabayi, who has extended a research visit to Stanford University in the US due to pandemic restrictions.

In a recent interview, Mirbabayi explained his motivation for creating the chat group.

How did you get the idea?

Well, it is not my idea, it is the idea of Douglas Stanford, a faculty member at Stanford University.  He works on quantum gravity. They have a group meeting that I am participating in; I have been visiting Stanford for the past 4  years so I am kind of family with them.

At some point in this group meeting we were wondering how we could encourage more interaction in this [COVID-19] situation. Normally, you would just run into somebody and talk, but now everything is just seminars or organized activities online so we are missing that aspect of random encounters which are important for coming up with new ideas. Douglas suggested having a list of emails and randomly matching people with each other once a week so they can chat. I thought it was a nice idea, and something we could easily do at ICTP. Douglas kindly gave me the programme he wrote to generate the random matches and instructions on how to do it.

How does it work?

The programme is a Python programme that automatically connects to a Gmail account and subscribes or unsubscribes emails to the list. Then there is a set of links to chat rooms using the Jitsi app. Once a week the programme makes random groups of these emails and then automatically sends a message to the people with the chat link.

The ICTP participants are a very different group of people compared to the Stanford group. At Stanford there are people working on closely connected subjects, while here at ICTP we have a very wide range of people working on different subjects, from observational cosmology to mathematical physics. To account for this, I have added a set of field preferences so people can decide how much they want to diversify or how much they want to focus in their chats. Everybody has a primary field--either cosmology, phenomenology or theory--so they can decide if they want to meet with people in different fields.

How many people have subscribed?

Now we have around 60 people, including ICTP associates from the developing world.

Who can subscribe?

Scientists at all career levels. Anyone who has the email address in principle can join. But in practice it is basically a HECAP group. One could have a separate programme for example in Condensed Matter.



Testimonials from some of HEPchat's users suggest that the service is a success. Paolo Creminelli, head of the HECAP section, said, "I think it is a great way to keep connections in these strange times, and I personally met many people I did not know and learned a lot of physics in doing so."

ICTP Diploma alumna Zainab Nazari, who maintains her connection to ICTP through the Sandwich Training and Education Programme while she works on her PhD, has found multiple benefits to the weekly chat sessions.

"Particularly in the time of pandemic, it has been crucial to stay connected with other physicists from around the world. Our discussions have been very fruitful, from the questions that I have been asked to the encouragement that I have received from them as a PhD student. The fact that you need to explain your work to someone in a short time with high clarity was a skill that I needed to gain during these conversations," she said.

Former ICTP HECAP postdoc Marcello Musso, now a faculty member at ICTP's partner institute in Rwanda, the East African Institute of Fundamental Research (EAIFR), has re-established connections with former colleagues through the chat group.

"I have met old friends I have not seen in a while, collaborators with whom I have projects that needed to be dusted off and never found time, or young people whose work I may have not known otherwise. All in a nice informal atmosphere that could be a casual meeting at the bar, with ice already broken," he said.

Echoing the sentiment felt by those in the ICTP community who miss the excellent coffee served at the ICTP bar, Musso added, "The only down side is that I have to make my own drink!"

--Mary Ann Williams